The last time I remember seeing a character named Rustom Pavri in Hindi films, it was in Munna Bhai MBBS (2003). Played by the actor Kurush Deboo, it was — especially in hindsight — a fairly stereotypical portrayal of a Parsi doctor. Even so, within the universe inhabited by the film's characters, it somehow fits.
In Tinu Suresh Desai's Rustom, a similarly tic-laden Kumud Mishra plays Erach Billimoria, a comically scoop-hungry tabloid editor (quite unimaginatively, his publication is called Truth). In a truly good film that is very obviously based on the sensational K.M. Nanavati murder case of 1959, this character would hold great value. In this case, modeled after the real-life tabloid editor Russi Karanjia, Erach is reduced to comic relief, one that even an incredibly consistent actor like Mishra (who seems to be in every second film nowadays) can't save.
Rustom is a strange beast: an A-list star vehicle that insists on being a B-movie. In hindsight, by which I mean a few hours after having watched it, I'll concede that it could indeed have been worse — there are no unnecessary item songs, for instance, and the story is genuinely interesting.
But it boggles the mind that a movie like Rustom made it off the editing table and into theatres, the way it is. Part courtroom drama and part battle-of-wits, this is an Akshay Kumar vehicle that, for some reason, doesn't allow its star to really act. As this movie's Rustom Pavri, he's at the opposite end of the 'Being Parsi' spectrum from Deboo, which is to say he basically comes across as Akshay Kumar playing a Parsi naval officer at all times.
The film opens with him in a crisp-white uniform aboard a ship, which he commandeers to reach home (Bombay — not Mumbai) several days ahead of schedule. I can't think of a recent film in which Kumar has appeared this disinterested — even his "Do you hear this?" announcement in which he informs his crew that they're getting home soon is delivered in the kind of monotone one would use to share cancer diagnoses with loved ones.
It's a horrible, indigestible mixture — like a school play with an out-of-control budget.
Perhaps he knows what's in store for him? Turns out his wife Cynthia (Ileana D'Cruz), who is from London but sports a Katrina Kaif accent, has been having a very reluctant affair with the philanderous Vikram Makhija (Arjan Bajwa). Rustom returns home with flowers, but finds that Cynthia isn't around. Thankfully, she has been kind enough to leave a very obvious trail of evidence — a bunch of love letters, arranged neatly — within easy reach, presumably because screenwriter Vipul K Rawal had a raging headache the day he wrote this scene and really couldn't be arsed to complicate matters.
Anyway, despite the movie's claims that the film is not inspired by the Nanavati case, Rustom does exactly what the naval officer had done: he pumps three bullets into Vikram's chest and marches straight into a nearby police station to surrender. A senior inspector named Vincent Lobo (Pavan Malhotra), all set to go on vacation for two weeks, looks visibly disappointed at this development, and the dramatic background score during this scene only makes the viewer giggle at his predicament.
Speaking of giggling at predicaments, this movie also stars Esha Gupta as Resting Bitch Face aka Preeti Makhija, Vikram's sister. As support for Rustom grows, fuelled by Erach's desire to defend a fellow Parsi, Preeti gets a Sindhi lawyer (an atrociously hammy Sachin Khedekar) on board to get justice for her brother, turning this into a battle between two of Bombay's wealthiest and most influential communities. An interesting dynamic to explore, sure, but Rustom is more interested in showing us Preeti's elaborately coiffured look and period-inappropriate dresses, even as Gupta channels her inner Ivanka Trump. It's a hilarious performance; what a pity it wasn't meant to be one.
As the film progresses to the courtroom scenes, it devolves into farce. While a loud score insists on accentuating every other moment with a crescendo, the film attempts to inject humour into the proceedings, with a wry judge a la My Cousin Vinny (Anang Desai, in the film's only truly effective performance) and an overly sassy maid named Jamnabai. It's a horrible, indigestible mixture — like a school play with an out-of-control budget.
Aside from that, this is also one of the tackiest looking films I've seen in a while, with an inexplicably oversaturated colour palette, bad lighting, lacklustre CGI (its recreation of late '50s Bombay leaves much to be desired), and amateurishly visible make-up. At one point, we're also subjected to Bajwa in a digitally printed orange robe, which is when I realised that it is humanly possible to both groan and giggle at the same time.
Perhaps the only real upside to this movie is that Kumar's character, an atypically non-heroic leading man, commendably, resists the urge to slut-shame his wife for straying. It's the star's worst performance this year, but at least the man still holds your attention. In the hands of a more capable writer and director, this could've been a great role. Alas, Rustom only ends up being yet another forgettable venture for the star.
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